It’s that time of year. Time for me to start writing a high school commencement address, just in case I’m tapped. Not that I ever have been, mind you, but one never knows.
This year’s address will be extra special in that our youngest, Rachel, will be in the group graduating from North Hall High School. Her school has an 88.24 percent graduation rate, the highest in the county. And that’s using the wonky new formula that’s caused a precipitous drop in the statistics.
I have to wonder: What happened to the 11.76 percent who didn’t graduate in four years? I think back to Rachel’s freshman year and the kids who looked too little to be going to such a big school. Who didn’t finish and where did they go?
I recall my freshman year of high school. It was August 1968. There were boys’ and girls’ smoking areas up by the gym and a carton of cigarettes cost $9. McDonald’s had just introduced the Big Mac. Gas was 27 cents a gallon.
There were some movies playing at the Royal and Sherwood Theaters that would prove to be classics: “The Graduate,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Planet of the Apes.” And a movie ticket was $1.
Those were the days.
On one of our first mornings in high school, we were all summoned to the gym.
The cheerleaders taught us the freshman class cheer. The student council president welcomed us. The band played the school fight song. Then the principal addressed us. I don’t remember much of what he said but I do remember this. He said: “Look to your left. Look to your right. Given the current statistics, one of you won’t finish high school. Resolve right here and now that that one won’t be you.”
As I think back now, I can’t recall anyone who was in the 33.3 percent who didn’t graduate. I can only think of the ones who went on to become leaders in their communities — teachers, principals, professors, artists, musicians, writers, physicians, lawyers and politicians. One even oversees the education of the president’s children. All from the Class of ’72.
When a kid dropped out in 1968, it was into a different world than now. There were jobs for young, unskilled workers. There were sewing plants, poultry plants, booming construction trades and the auto industry a short drive away in Doraville.
Now? Not so much.
So my thoughts and remarks this spring aren’t for the class of 2012. They are for the ones who didn’t make it to the finish line, the 11.76 percent who are just now waking up to the realization that they’ve made a decision that will limit their options for the rest of their lives.
Don’t give me that bull about how some of our most successful entrepreneurs were dropouts. Yeah, I know Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. But before he could drop out, he had to be admitted. That in itself is no mean feat. And I hazard to guess that no one in the 11.76 percent is a Bill Gates.
There is no upside to being uneducated and the statistics are grim. The unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma is nearly twice that of the general population. Over a lifetime, you will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate and almost $1 million less than a college graduate. You are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, become teenage parents, live in poverty and commit suicide.
To you of the 11.76 percent I say, “What the hell are you waiting for? Do you think you’ll ever live in a world that embraces the undereducated? Fix this. Get over to the Adult Learning Center. Get your GED. Start now.”
You may think it’s too late for you. Or maybe you’ve managed to land a halfway decent job with some benefits. I pray you’re able to keep it when the boss has to decide who to fire — you, with your two kids and three years of high school, or the guy with the diploma and a certificate from Lanier Tech. I hope it never comes to that but it certainly could and probably will.
So get with it, would you please?
A year from now, I want you to call me. Tell me how it wasn’t easy but you managed to stick with it and get your GED. Tell me how your kids baked a cake for you and your mom cried when you were handed your certificate. Tell me how it feels to have accomplished something that makes you stand taller than you’ve ever stood and hope for more than you ever dreamed possible.
And then we’ll write the commencement column for 2013 together.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.